I had an unsettling moment today when it occurred to me that, perhaps, people don’t learn anything from museums.
I hope this is not true. I say this after having visited the marvellous Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, spending about 5 hours today perusing the galleries and shamelessly eavesdropping on people’s reactions to the exhibits. Kids were certainly excited about the exhibits and eagerly pointed things out to their parents. But what sorts of things did I overhear parents saying to their children?
In reference to a very nice mosasaur skeleton, with accompanying illustration: “That’s neat sweetie, look. It looks kind of like a crocodile I guess. It must be a crocodile fish.”
By that logic, I guess the early whale Zygorhiza is probably a crocodile fish, too.
Looking at Pteranodon: “Look at that…whatever it is.”
That is a Pteranodon, good sir, as the label clearly states. This comment particularly stung because of all the things I remember from my visit to the Smithsonian when I was 10, it was this Pteranodon keeping watch over the dinosaur hall that was most burned into my memory. Also, holy mackerel! Look at the wing below it!
In front of Ceratosaurus: “Look kiddo, T. rex!”
Ceratosaurus does not equal Tyrannosaurus.
I was heartened to see some parents slowing down, reading things to their children and asking them questions about the exhibits. But for the most part, most folks simply went ‘Wow! A dinosaur!’, snapped a photo, and kept going. The same was largely true for a lot of the other exhibits as well, particularly in the ocean gallery (although in that case, the comment was ‘Wow! A giant squid!’).
In other galleries, I was a bit surprised by reactions to the unknown or new.
At the binturong: “What kind of cat is that?” followed by immediately walking away.
At the Chinese pangolin: “What the hell is that? GROSS!” followed by immediately walking away.
I will not fault people for not knowing that Ceratosaurus is different than Tyrannosaurus, or not having any idea what a pangolin is. What I find distressing is the lack of desire to KNOW reflected by some of these comments. The reactions were not “What kind of cat is that? A binturong? Oh, it’s not a cat? Why? That’s neat!” or “Look at that…whatever that is…oh, it’s a Pteranodon!” The reactions were “I don’t know what that is and I’m not going to do anything to change that.”
These comments got me thinking about the role of natural history museums (and museums of any sort, I suppose), once again. I love museums. I think I learn when I visit museums, especially for topics I know little about. I may not get a lot out of most dinosaur exhibits, but I almost always find something new (e.g., the Smithsonian’s small but very good exhibit on the dinosaurs from Maryland, and I will talk about this more in a later post). But how do other people approach museums? Perhaps not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for all topics, and will breeze through the exhibits – and that’s ok. Perhaps museums are most effective at teaching when they are visited by school groups; school visits are probably more focused on a single gallery, may have the students filling out worksheets or booklets and therefore LOOKING at things for more than 5 seconds, and teachers may have access to curriculum guides and other resources not available to tourists or parents. Follow-up activities may help the students reflect on what they saw. For most regular tourists though, what are they getting out of the museum? I don’t mean this flippantly – I would be genuinely interested to know if there has been any research done on what people retain from museum visits, and how to deliver information in a museum setting most effectively. The museum was busy and bopping and full of energy, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. But if you aren’t pausing, reflecting, asking questions and seeking answers, what are you getting out of the museum experience?